Part 9

"So, where’s Ash?" Lu asked grumpily as she watched Sheila fuss with the lunch tray the nurse had brought in moments before.

"I think she’s down in the chapel," Sheila replied as she rolled the table around to place it in front of Lu.

Lu grimaced at the less than appealing meal. "I suppose you’re going to make me eat this?" she whined picking up her fork and poking at the mystery meat swimming in gravy. "I thought hospitals were suppose to heal the sick, not make you sicker!"

Sheila chuckled. "Yep, the whole thing. That is if you want to get out of here this afternoon."

Lu grumbled but dutifully began to eat. "Wait a minute!" she exclaimed, swallowing the bite she had just taken. "Did you say Ash is in the chapel? What’s that about?"

Sheila sat down beside her on the bed and motioned for her to continue eating. "I would assume she went in there because it was the first quiet place she spotted," Sheila shrugged. Lu gave her a questioning look and motioned with her fork for her to go on. "I mentioned Lauren and she…" Sheila sighed as she lowered her head and picked at the hospital blanket. "Well, she didn’t take it too well."

"What do you mean?" Lu demanded as she set down her fork and gently took her lover’s hand.

"I asked when she was going to bring Lauren over to meet us," Sheila replied as she gently caressed Lu’s strong hand with her thumb. "She didn’t react well. Said she didn’t think that would ever happen."

"What? Why?" Lu asked flabbergasted.

"Seems she’s under the impression she’s some kind of monster and Lauren won’t want to have anything to do with her after what she did last night," Sheila explained. She glanced up to meet her lover’s eyes and saw the look of disbelief painted across Lu’s face. "I told her she wasn’t a monster and I was glad she was there! Why in the world would she think that?"

"Probably because she blanked when that guy whacked me," Lu grumbled as her face scrunched up in thought.

"Blanked?" Sheila asked puzzled. "What do you mean, blanked?"

Lu sighed and shook her head. "When Ash sees someone she cares about in trouble she goes into a blind rage. I’ve seen it happen a couple of times before. It’s pretty damn scary." Lu shuddered at the memories. "It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does… look out! She’s pretty much unstoppable. Unless someone knocks her out or she falls over from exhaustion."

"Really?" Sheila asked not believing that the overly controlled woman she knew was capable of such an unbridled reaction.

"Oh yeah," Lu stated with a solemn nod. "She has more training in martial arts than I think is safe and believe me, she knows how to use it! I’m always giving her shit about being a musician with lethal combat skills, but it’s the honest truth. She can kill with her bare hands as easy as you could pull a trigger on a gun."

Sheila sat back and a thoughtful look crossed her face. "I think that’s it, Lu."


"I think she’s afraid of her rage and not being able to control it," Sheila asserted, meeting Lu’s eyes with a sad smile.

"Why?" Lu asks truly puzzled by Sheila’s revelation and what it had to do with anything.

"I think she’s afraid that she might hurt Lauren," Sheila said and waited for the thought to sink in before continuing. Realization dawned across Lu’s face. "I think last night made her realize that she could be a real danger to Lauren and it’s really shaken her up."

"That’s just plain stupid!" Lu growled, throwing her hands up. "She’s never hurt anyone but the bad guys when she blanks! Shit! I’ve been there! She’s never once turned my way and gone after me! Why the hell does she think it will be any different with Lauren?" Lu shook her head angrily. She met Sheila’s worried eyes. "She’s going to use this as an excuse to run. You know that right?"

Sheila nodded solemnly. "I figured as much. I hope what I said to her in the chapel sinks in and maybe when she talks to Lauren, Lauren will be able to talk some sense into her."

"Don’t count on it!" Lu asserted in disgust. "That woman is as stubborn as they come! Once she has an idea in her mind, it will take a miracle to make her realize she’s wrong!"

"There’s nothing we can do about it, honey," Sheila said trying to calm an agitated Lu. "Let’s just wait and see what happens. She may surprise us."
"Yeah, right," Lu said sarcastically.

"I called Pete after I had breakfast," Sheila informed her, thinking it was a good idea to get her to think about something other than her anger at Ash.

"Oh? What did Branigan have to say?" Lu asked as she absently rolled the table back over and began picking at her lunch.

"Turns out the guy who hit you was wanted."

"Huh, guess that’s not too surprising," Lu said around a mouthful of Jell-o. "What for?"

"Guess he’s wanted up north for questioning in regards to a double homicide that happened a couple of weeks ago during what the cops think was a drug deal gone bad," Sheila explained as she watched with a wry smile as Lu absently ate her lunch.

"Really?" Lu pondered. "Guess Ash did them a favor then."

"Guess so," Sheila nodded. "He’s here in the hospital with the state police on watch at his door."

"How’s he doing?" Lu asked wiping her mouth with her napkin and pushing the finished tray away.

"Not too bad, considering," Sheila answered as she stood and wheeled the table out of the way. "They had to do emergency surgery since he had a collapsed lung."

"Serves the bastard right," Lu grunted watching her petite lover with an admiring eye. "So I take it, he’ll live to stand trial?"

"Definitely," Sheila stated as she walked over to the visitor chair and leaned down to pick up the bag she had left there. "Of course they’ll have to wait until the doctors unwire his jaw before they can get a confession out of him! Since Ash did quite a number on it."

Lu laughed heartily. "Oh shit! That hurts!" she grimaced as she grabbed her head. "But it was worth it!"

Sheila smiled, "Glad you think so. Pete said that the D.A. would probably be calling you about pressing charges."

"Great," Lu grimaced. "I hate getting involved in that crap." Sheila gave her a reproving stare. "I know, I know!" Lu stated rolling her eyes. "Don’t worry. I’ll be a good little victim and presses charges so the bastard doesn’t get away with it."

"Good," Sheila stated. "I brought you some clothes if you’d like to change. Thought you might be getting sick of the air conditioned undies." She gestured to the hospital gown that Lu was wearing with a smirk.

"I knew there was a reason why I loved you!" Lu chortled as she held out her arms for the clothes.

"I hope there’s more reasons than clean clothes!" Sheila admonished with a smile as she handed over the clothes.

Lu took the clothes eagerly and swept back the covers. She slid out of bed and shed the dreaded flowered hospital gown with relief. She quickly pulled on the black tank and boxers, followed by a black pair of sweats. "You, my love, are the absolute best!" she enthused with pleasure. She gave Sheila a beaming smile as she laid back on the bed and crossed her legs at the ankles.

"I try," Sheila smiled and came to sit next to the reclining Lu.

"So, when can I get out of here?" Lu questioned as she pulled Sheila down to lie next to her. "You are supposed to be resting."

Sheila giggled but gave in and snuggled up to Lu placing her head on her muscular shoulder. "As soon as the doctor comes by and releases you. Shouldn’t be too long."

Lu grinned and kissed the top of Sheila’s silky black head. She pulled Sheila close and let out a sigh of contentment. "Well, I guess I can stand to wait with you here to keep me company."

They lay in quiet companionship both thankful that everything had turned out all right. Lu softly stroked Sheila’s silky hair and let her mind wander over the problem of Ash and what to do about her. She wanted to help her but wasn’t sure how to go about it.


"Hmm?" Lu murmured absently.

"Do you really think Ash will take off?"

"Yeah, I do," Lu stated firmly.

Sheila lifted her head so she could see Lu’s serious face. "Really?"

"Yeah. It’s what she’s good at," Lu said as she brought her hand up to gently caress Sheila’s upturned face. "I just wish I could think of some way to get her to listen!"

"We’ll think of something," Sheila asserted leaning into the caress. "Maybe I should call Lauren and see how she is?"

"Hmmm," Lu thought about it. "That may not be such a bad thought. But let’s wait until after we talk to Ash. Maybe we’re seeing smoke where there’s no fire."
"I hope your right," Sheila sighed as she rested her head once again on Lu’s shoulder and closed her eyes. The stressful morning was starting to catch up with her and she felt sleep calling.

Lu felt her lover relax into sleep and smiled. "I hope so too, love. I really do," she whispered as she gently cradled her sleeping lover.


Ash made her way slowly to Lu’s room. She had sat in the peaceful chapel for a half hour after hanging up the phone. Lauren’s obvious concern and need to help had touched her deeply. Her heart had pleaded with her to just go jump in her truck and drive back to the safe haven of Lauren’s arms, while her head vehemently argued that she needed to go figure out how to control herself before she even thought about returning to Lauren. She shook her head violently trying to banish the thoughts. Her head had won out by a slim margin and she was determined that it wouldn’t take long to come to grips with her problem. She ached to be with Lauren and feared that Lauren wouldn’t wait for long.

She stepped quietly into Lu’s room and glanced at the bed. Sheila’s petite frame was curled up in the crook of Lu’s arm sound asleep. Her short black hair mussed where it rested against Lu’s shoulder. Lu’s eyes came up to meet hers and she nodded towards the visitor chair in invitation.

Ash walked quietly into the room and fell gracelessly into the chair with a sigh. She rested her head on the back of the chair and rubbed her burning eyes.

Lu studied her friend and was shocked by her appearance. She had never seen Ash looking so strung out. Her clothes were rumpled and stained and were definitely the worse for wear after the events of last night. Her raven hair was pulled back in a lopsided ponytail with wisps sticking out all over. Her eyes were bloodshot and surrounded by dark circles, but the spark had returned. It wasn’t as bright or blinding as Lu remembered but it was there.

"Hey, buddy," Lu greeted her softly. "You look like shit."

A small crooked grin touched Ash’s lips. "Thanks for the update," she said wryly.

"You should go back to my place and crash for a few hours. You really look like you could use some sleep," Lu suggested.

"Mmmm," Ash nodded and rolled her head around until her neck cracked loudly.

"Ouch," Lu winced.

Ash gave her a tired grin and a small shoulder shrug. "It’s been a long night."

"Yeah, I guess it has," Lu nodded in agreement. "Did you call get a hold of Lauren?"

Ash’s eyebrow shot up.

"Sheila told me you were going to call her," Lu explained.

"Yeah, I talked to her about half an hour ago," Ash sighed leaning back in the chair.

"And?" Lu prompted.

"And?" Ash opened her eyes and gave Lu an inquiring look.

"And what did you say to her?"

"I told her I was fine, you were fine, and that I’d call her back after I had some sleep," Ash stated.

Lu narrowed her eyes and asked, "Did you tell her when you were coming back?"

Ash stiffened. "No."

"And why the hell not?" Lu demanded in a hushed tone.

"Because I don’t know when I’ll be going back," Ash stated in a warning tone giving Lu an icy stare.

"Shit!" Lu scoffed. "You’re going to take off aren’t you?"

Ash didn’t reply. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared defiantly at Lu as her mask slipped into place and her face went blank.

"Haven’t you realized that she’s the best damn thing that has ever happened to you?" Lu argued passionately. "Yesterday you arrived with a god damn glow about you over her! And now you’re just going to run off to the back woods and leave her? What the fuck? Are you out of your damn mind?"

"Lu," Ash warned as she sat up and leaned forward menacingly.

"No! I’m not going to shut up! Someone needs to point out what an ass your being and it looks like the job has fallen to me!" Lu shot back, her voice rising and awakening Sheila.

Sheila rubbed her eyes sleepily and took in the angry face of her lover and the menacing countenance of Ash and bolted upright. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded her glance going back and forth between the two.

Lu gave her an apologetic look and then returned her angry gaze to Ash. "Go on! Tell her, Ash," Lu ordered sweeping her hand out. "Tell her how you’re going to take off and break Lauren’s heart!"

Sheila’s eyes went wide and she turned inquiringly to Ash. "Is that true, Ash?"

Ash’s lip curled up in a snarl. "No! I’m not running away from her! I just need some time to work some things out! I don’t want to hurt her!"

Lu snorted in disbelief, "Yeah, right. Tell me another one, Ash. I’m feeling gullible at the moment."

Ash’s face went blank and her eyes looked like chips of ice. Sheila swallowed the sudden fear that overwhelmed her and said, "What things, Ash? Maybe we can help."

"No one can help!" Ash roared as she stood. She pointed a finger at Lu and stated, "Stay the fuck out of it, Darkcloud! You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!"

"Oh? Don’t I?" Lu growled as she slowly rose from the bed and stood. Sheila reached for her, but Lu brushed her aside. She stepped forward and leaned into Ash to get up in her face. "You know what your biggest problem is, Gray?" She waited a couple heartbeats as she stared into Ash’s cold eyes. "You’re afraid to be happy. Someone great comes along and instead of embracing it, you turn tail and run!"

"Shut up, Lu," Ash warned in a low, menacing tone as her hands balled into white knuckled fists.

Lu shook her head in disgust. "You find some excuse to high tail it out of here! Who gives a fuck if you have a temper? I’ve seen it." She shrugs dismissively. "I’ve seen you tear guys apart. But you know what, Gray?"

Ash stared at her friend coldly. Her emotions were all over the place. She felt totally off balance by Lu’s sudden attack. Angered flowed through her making her feel flushed and she clenched her teeth to fight back the urge to lash out. Lu’s words had the ring of truth to them and she fought to bury them. She didn’t want to think about it now! Couldn’t think about it now. She needed time to sort out everything. Why couldn’t Lu understand that? Didn’t she realize how dangerous she was to Lauren?

"I’ll tell you," Lu stated in a low voice when she realized that Ash wasn’t going to answer her. "Consider this a gift. You have never and I mean never hurt anyone who didn’t damn well deserve it when you’ve gone off!" she swore vehemently as she poked Ash in the chest. "I’ve been there! I’ve seen it! You have never hurt an innocent, Gray! NEVER! So why the hell do you think Lauren is going to be any different?"

Ash stared at her blankly through the red haze of anger. Her mind began sorting through the myriad of memories of times her rage had taken over. She couldn’t find anything to argue against Lu’s point. But damn it! There was still the chance! Wasn’t there? "I can’t take the chance, Lu," she stated quietly with defeat.

Lu stepped back and studied Ash’s face intently. She saw resignation and fear flicker across her stoic façade. "You can’t afford not to," Lu stated firmly meeting desperate blue eyes with a look of compassion. "You need her, Ash. You need her like you need air to breathe. Please, don’t do this."

Ash shook her head wearily. "I have to, Lu. I have to go and sort things out," Ash said in a resigned voice as her shoulders slumped. "I need some time to figure out what the hell is going on!"

Sheila walked up behind Lu and rested her hand on the small of her back rubbing it soothingly. Lu looked down and gave her a small smile. Sheila smiled back and then turned her attention to Ash. "Ash," she said softly. Ash’s blue eyes came up and met hers. Sheila felt her pain and confusion wash over her. "I understand that you need time to think. Just make sure Lauren understands that."

Ash nodded minutely. "I will, Sheila. Thanks."

"Go get some sleep, Ash," Lu ordered with a smile. "You really do look like shit."

Sheila giggled.

"Thanks, I think I will," Ash replied dryly. "When they springing you?"

"After the doctor comes and pokes me again," Lu grunted as she sat back on the bed. She rubbed her eyes as the pain in her head came back full force.

Sheila gave her a concerned look. "You okay, honey?’

"Yeah, just a headache," Lu reassured her as she reached out blindly and Sheila quickly took her hand. Lu gave it a gentle squeeze and opened her eyes to look at Ash. "You going to stick around for awhile?"

"I’m not sure," Ash said slowly as she thought about it. "Maybe. We’ll see how things go."

"You’re welcome to stay with us as long as you need to," Sheila offered sincerely.

"Thanks, Sheila," Ash said with a thankful smile. "Guess I better go and get some sleep before I pass out."

"Good plan," Lu said.

Ash gave them a wave and left the room. The two women stared at the empty doorway lost in their own thoughts.

"Well, that was interesting," Sheila sighed as she flopped down on the bed next to Lu.

"Yeah, I guess it was," Lu smiled as she pulled Sheila close and gave her a reassuring hug.

"I thought she was going to hall off and smack you there for a minute," Sheila said shaking her head.

"So did I!" Lu agreed with a chuckle.

Sheila slugged her playfully. "Don’t ever push her like that again, Lu. I thought my heart was going to leap right out of my mouth!" she reprimanded. "You scared the hell out of me!"

"Scared myself too," Lu replied as she fended off her lover’s attempts to poke her. "But I just couldn’t let her go without having my say."

"Well, you definitely had that!" Sheila laughed as she gave up trying to punish Lu and gave her a hearty squeeze instead. "Do you think any of it sank in?"

"Gods, I hope so!" Lu swore vehemently. "Hopefully she’ll realize that she’s just being stupid and go running back to Seattle soon! I just hope Lauren will still be waiting for her."

"Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about that," Sheila surmised as she gently pushed Lu down to lie on the bed. Lu happily conceded and Sheila snuggled up to her.

"Why do you say that? You don’t even know her?" Lu questioned as she relaxed back and closed her eyes trying to will the headache away.

"Just a hunch," Sheila replied with a shrug. "Call it woman’s intuition. But from the brief talk I had with her, I have a feeling that Lauren would walk through fire to be by Ash’s side."

"She just might have to," Lu grunted. "Damn stubborn woman."

"Lu, be nice," Sheila admonished. "This is all new to Ash and I think she’s confused and scared."

"Yeah, I guess you’re right," Lu agreed after thinking about it for a moment. "Still no excuse."

"Maybe not, but I think once Ash has time to think about it she’ll come to the same conclusions we have."

"Oh?" Lu said doubtfully. "I think her problem is she’s thinking too damn much! She needs to quit listening to that damn head of hers and listen to her heart!"

"Why, Lu," Sheila exclaimed as she peeked up at her lover with an amused smile. "You’ve been hiding a mushball under that tough exterior of yours all along!" She shook her head. "You’ve had me totally convinced that you were a tough, no nonsense type of gal and then you go and spout something that romantic!"

Lu felt her face heat up. "Sheila, stop it!" she mumbled in embarrassment.

Sheila chuckled. "I’m sorry, love," Sheila apologized and gave Lu’s stomach a gentle pat. "I think you’re right though. She does think too much with her head."

"Yeah," Lu sighed. "Let’s just hope it’s not her undoing."

Lu’s statement hung in the air between them as they both worried over the possible outcome. Sheila snuggled closer to Lu for comfort and Lu wrapped her arms tight around her and kissed her head. She prayed silently to anyone who was listening to help her friend see the truth before it was too late.


Lauren slowly clawed her way to consciousness. She carefully assessed her condition and inwardly grimaced. Her eyes felt swollen and gritty while her mouth tasted like she had been sucking on a worn gym sock. She groaned and slowly cracked her eyes open to glance at the clock. She swore in disgust when she saw it was past 3 and burrowed her head further into her welcoming pillow.

I need to get up and do something! She informed herself vehemently, but her body had other ideas. It was perfectly content to snuggle further into the covers and go back to sleep. She started to drift off and then violently jerked herself awake. No! I can’t laze around in bed all day! I’ve done enough of that already! I need to get up and attempt to get something accomplished! She rolled over onto her back and slowly opened her eyes to stare blankly at the ceiling. The last thing she wanted to do was get up and face what was left of the day. It would be so much easier to just let sleep claim her and fall back into the blissful nothingness. No doubts, no emotions, no fears to deal with, just the dreams of Ash’s secure warm embrace enveloping her and the feel of her soft lips gently brushing her hair.

She shook her head and heaved herself up. No! I can’t dwell on that or I’ll go mad! She chastised herself as she crawled out of bed and stretched with a wince. She was stiff and her body was protesting being pulled out of its nice warm bed.

She stumbled towards the kitchen and the promise of coffee. She rubbed her aching eyes and smacked her lips. "I think a glass of water is the first order of business and then a shower," she said aloud as she pulled a glass from the cupboard. She filled the glass and drank it down thirstily. She let out a contented sigh and set the glass in the sink. She turned to the coffee maker and frowned.

"Yuck," she groaned as she pulled the half full and burned smelling pot from the warmer. She poured it down the sink and quickly rinsed it. She changed the filter and perused the coffee choices. "Hmm, what shall it be? I think Vanilla today." She nodded and pulled the beans out. She quickly ground them and set the pot to brew. She yawned and turned to head towards the bathroom for her shower.

An hour later she was feeling more alive and had finished 2 cups of coffee. I should really take a look at my thesis and see where I’m at, she thought and headed for the computer. Some music would be good. She detoured to the stereo and turned it on. She began walking back to the computer when Ash’s haunting Gaelic music flowed out of the speakers. Lauren froze in mid step at the unexpected sound. I forgot that was in there! Her mind wailed as she squeezed her eyes shut and choked down the whirl of emotions that consumed her.

She staggered blindly towards the papa san and collapsed into it. She curled into a tight ball and let Ash’s music wash over her. Listening to it this time, she heard all the pain and angst that Ash must have been feeling when she played. Lauren felt the tears brim and begin to slowly track down her face as she was swept up in the whirlwind of emotions that the music was portraying. She let her mind go blank and just feel.

The cd ended and she remained lying there enthralled by the experience and consumed with the heart wrenching knowledge that Ash had been in incredible pain when she had made the cd.

"Oh, Ash," she cried breaking the silence. She had the overwhelming desire to drive to Spokane and pull Ash into a bone-crushing hug. To hold her and tell her that everything was going to be all right. That no one was going to hurt her like that again if she had anything to say about it!

The jarring ring of the phone jerked her out of her mad plans on how to get to Spokane. She glared at the phone over the edge of the chair. It rang again and she sighed wearily and pulled herself to her feet. She stomped over and grabbed it midway through the third ring.



"Yes, mom. Who else would be answering my phone?" Lauren sighed as she fell back on the bed and closed her eyes. Her emotions were still raw and her mind was on Ash and the need to go to her. She struggled to pay attention to what her mother was saying.

"What are you doing home, dear? I was expecting to get the machine and leave you a message. Don’t you have class today? Are you sick?" her mom’s concerned voice drifted out of the receiver.

"No, I’m not sick. I don’t have class because I dropped all of them," Lauren explained and waited for the explosion.

"What? Why would you do something like that? I thought you were doing well. Is there something wrong, Lauren?" her mom asked with obvious concern.

"Nothing’s wrong, mom. I just dropped my classes so I could focus on my thesis," Lauren explained. "Dr. Stein actually suggested it. I don’t need the credits and decided he was right. So, I dropped my class load and am hoping to have my thesis done before Thanksgiving."

"Oh, okay, dear," Vivian said with relief. "If Dr. Stein thinks that’s best, I’m sure he’s right."

"Why were you calling?"

"I almost forgot!" Vivian laughed. "I was calling to see how the show went. I left a message on your machine, but I guess you haven’t had a chance to call me back yet."

"Sorry, mom," Lauren said chagrined. Images of Ash flashed through her mind: Ash smiling fondly at her as she escorted her to the show…. Ash’s beautiful face tear streaked as she confessed her love for her… Ash throwing her head back in joyful laughter, her blue eyes twinkling… waking up and looking up into Ash’s loving face as she leaned down and gently kissed her.

"Lauren? Are you there, dear?"

Lauren jerked back to the present and answered, "The show went fine, mom. In fact I fell asleep before I even found out the results! I’m not sure who ended up with my number one print or how much they paid for it! Guess I’ll have to ask Louis."

"And the CD collection?" her mom asked eagerly.

Lauren winced, "Oh… um… I’m not sure how much they went for. I’m sorry, mom, but you didn’t get them."

"Oh," her mom sighed dejected.

"But I did meet Ash and she said that she could probably get her hands on a set for you at bargain basement prices!" Lauren grinned.

"Really?" Vivian asked with hope.

"Yep. She said it wouldn’t be a problem," Lauren confirmed and then her eyes narrowed as she remembered her previous conversation with her mother. "Hey! You knew Ash was a woman all along! Why didn’t you tell me?"

Vivian laughed. "Now what would be the fun in that? Were you surprised?"

"You could say that," Lauren grumbled.

"I wish I had been there to see your face!" Vivian teased.

Lauren felt her face heat up. Oh boy! Would you have been surprised, mom! I think I fell for her the moment her blue eyes met mine! And from Rach’s said, it was pretty obvious to anyone watching! "Yeah, well, I’m sure I had a deer in the headlights look!" Lauren stated with a wry grin.

"I’m sure you did! So, is she wonderful?"

Lauren sat up in surprise at the question. "What do you mean?" she asked floundering to figure out how her mom could possibly know!

"Her music, dear," her mom explained lightly. "Did you get to hear her play?"

Lauren closed her eyes in relief. "Yeah, I did," she answered softly. The memory of sitting out on the deck and being enchanted by Ash’s music and the musician came back to her. She smiled wistfully as she reminisced. Ash sitting crossed legged in the deck chair with her guitar cradled in her lap, her raven black hair gentled caressed by the light breeze, her long tapered fingers dancing across the strings, and her face joyous with the pleasure of playing and her blue eyes twinkling. "She gave me a private concert Saturday afternoon."

"Really? Wow! I would kill to hear her live again!" Vivian said with wistful longing.

Lauren smiled sadly. You may get your chance yet, mom. If I can just get her back here and make her realize that I can’t live without her! "Maybe you’ll get the chance," Lauren replied softly. "She is playing again and maybe she’ll start doing concerts again."

"Lauren what’s wrong?" her mother asked sternly.

"What? Why?" Lauren asked confused.

"You sound depressed. Has something happened? Do you need to talk?"

Lauren’s mind whirled with possible answers to that question. Should I just tell her? Would she understand? Gods! Do I even understand? What if things don’t work out and I lose her because I tell her? Then I wouldn’t have Ash or my mom! Indecision bombarded her and she felt her stomach clench with the tension. "Umm… it’s nothing, mom," she said slowly as she thought frantically for something to say to alleviate her mother’s concern. "I’m just stressed out over my thesis and stuff."

A few moments of silence ensued as Lauren prayed her mother would accept her reasoning and let it go. She didn’t think she could hide anything from her if she really wanted to know.

"Are you sure?" her mom finally asked quietly.

No, I’m not sure! Her mind screamed. My whole world is coming apart around me and I can’t think of any way to stop it from happening! So, no! I’m not sure of anything! She closed her eyes and tried in vain to shove the frustration down, but her mind was on a roll and continued, I’m madly in love with a woman that needs time to think! What the hell does that mean? Needs time to think… think about what? That she was crazy to think she loved me? That she’d be better off without me? Like Amanda? A stab of pain pierced her heart as that thought went through it. No! She’s nothing like her! She loves me! Damn it! She’ll be back! She left her guitar here! She’ll come back for that if nothing else!

"Yeah, mom, I’m sure," she stated absently as she continued to argue with herself. "Things are just hectic. I’m sure they’ll calm down soon."

"Do you want me to tell Katie that this isn’t a good time to visit?"

"What? No, of course not!" Lauren said regaining control of her rampaging thoughts at the suggestion. "I’m looking forward to her visit. I haven’t seen her since June and I miss her. Besides she’s been looking forward to this visit for months!"

"True," her mother chuckled. "But I don’t want her to cause any more strain, dear."

"No worries, mom," Lauren assured. "A dose of Katie may be just what I need!"

"All right, I’ll tell her. Do you want me to have her call you this weekend so you 2 can finalize your plans?"

"That’s probably a good idea," Lauren nodded. "I have some questions for her anyway. Like what she’s got planned for a costume!"

Vivian laughed, "Oh! I’m trembling in my boots at just the thought!"

Lauren laughed and had to agree that her sister was definitely… creative when it came to costume choices. "Has she given you any idea on what she’s planning?"

"No, not a clue. She’s being very secretive about the whole thing," her mother bemoaned.

"Oh great! Now you’ve got me worried!" Lauren groaned.

"You should be! Maybe you’ll be able to get it out of her!"

"I’ll try. I hope she doesn’t embarrass me!"

"Lauren, that’s what younger sister’s are for!" her mother chortled.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Lauren said dismissively. "Tell her to give me a call. I don’t have any plans this week other than burying myself in the library, so I should be home."

"I’ll let her know," Her mother assured her and paused before asking quietly. "Have you given any more thought about coming home for Thanksgiving?"

Lauren sighed resentfully. "No, not really."

"I would really love to see you, Lauren," her mom explained. "I don’t want to put undo pressure on you, but I miss having you home for the holidays. It’s been 5 years since you came home. Is it too much to ask?"

"No, mom, I guess not," Lauren said feeling guilty. Had it really been 5 years? She quickly figured it out in her head and realized her mom was right. "I’m leaning that way. It just depends on a couple of things that are going on right now." Like Ash coming back and agreeing to go with me!

"Okay, honey. I won’t ask again," Vivian replied sincerely. "Just think about it and let me know if you’re going to come in time for me to make plans for you."

"Mom, I’m perfectly capable of buying my own plane tickets!" Lauren said defensively.

"I know, I know, you’re all grown up. Just let a mother fulfill her need to baby her kid okay?"

"Okay, mom. I’m sorry I snapped at you," Lauren apologized contritely.

"That’s okay. I remember what it was like to be your age, you know," her mother teased lightly.

"I love you, mom and I’ll talk to you soon."

"I love you too. I’ll tell Katie to give you a call in the early evening some time this week. Will that work?"

"Yeah, that’ll be fine. Thanks."

"Take care of yourself and try not to let the stress get to you too much okay?"

"I’ll do my best. Talk to you soon. Bye."


Lauren lowered the phone and clicked it off. It amazed her how well her mother could read her moods even through a phone line. She just knew I was upset about something! I’m glad she didn’t pressure me to go into it. I know I would’ve caved and then what? She sighed and flopped back down on the bed. Gods, I need a hug right now! Ash, wherever you are, think fast! I don’t think I can stand this much longer!

She scrubbed her face and sat up. Guess, I better hit the books and see how much I can accomplish. Maybe I can lose myself in medieval England and leave all this crap behind for a while! She rose and strode determinedly to her computer and her waiting thesis.


"I don’t care what you have to do! Just do it!"

Alexi heard Judith’s angry voice emanating from the room that she had converted into a private office last year. She slowed her pace and quietly crept to stand next to the door so she could eavesdrop. She was curious about what Judith would be yelling about. She had been acting distant and weird all week and she was hoping the conversation might enlighten her. She heard Judith begin to pace and knew that was a sure sign of impending fury. She almost felt sorry for the person Judith was about to go off on.

"Listen, you stupid bastard," Judith said viciously. "I’m not paying you to think! I’m paying you to do! So quit bellyaching and just do it!" Her words ended on an ear splitting shriek.

Alexi heard the phone crash against the wall and Judith begin to swear emphatically. She heard something else crash and winced, hoping it wasn’t something irreplaceable that just met its demise. She stepped back from the wall and straightened her shoulders. Taking a deep breath for courage, she strode into the room taking in the destruction. She inwardly sighed to see that it had just been a glass vase that had fell victim to Judith’s wrath. She plastered on a cheerful smile and hoped that Judith’s fury was spent and wouldn’t turn on her.

"Hey, love," she greeted brightly as she eyed her enraged lover’s back.

Judith froze at the sound of Alexi’s greeting. Alexi watched fascinated as Judith calmly straightened her tailored cream jacket with a couple of tugs and turned with a smile.

"Alexi, darling! Did you just get home?" Judith bubbled as she spread her arms wide and swept across the floor to envelope Alexi in an enthusiastic embrace.

Alexi returned the embrace as she tried to keep the confusion off her face. "Yes, just walked in the door," she replied as she gazed up into Judith’s smiling face trying to detect any residue of anger.

"How was your day?" Judith inquired as she began to tease Alexi’s hair and pressed her body invitingly against her.

Alexi swallowed and struggled to fight down the wave of desire that crashed over her at Judith’s administrations. "It was fine," she said unevenly as her heart began to race. Her hands slid up Judith’s inviting curves without conscious volition and began to caress her.

"Oh good," Judith purred into Alexi’s ear causing her to shudder. "I was hoping you would be in a good mood."

"I’m…" Alexi licked her lips and tried again. "I’m always in a good mood when you’re around, Judith."

"Oh, you say the nicest things," Judith cooed as she ran her hands down Alexi’s back in a teasing feather light touch. "Then you won’t mind if I ask you a teensy weensy favor?"

"Mmmm," Alexi moaned as Judith’s hands cupped her ass and pulled her firmly against her. Alexi’s mouth began to water and she started to kiss Judith’s creamy throat. Her hands glided around Judith’s waist and pulled her more firmly against her.

Judith leaned back to disengage Alexi’s questing mouth. Alexi glanced up befuddled by the lust Judith always brought out in her. "What?" she asked as her hands began to determinedly unbutton Judith’s blouse.

"The favor, darling," Judith reiterated as she guided Alexi’s hands inside her blouse to cup her breasts. She moaned in pleasure. "Would you mind if I asked you a small favor?"

"Anything, Judith," Alexi asserted as she ogled Judith’s breasts wantonly. Her doubts and worries about Judith’s anger had totally vanished under the assault of Judith’s charms. She lowered her head and began to nuzzle her breasts.

"Mmmm, that feels so good, darling," Judith groaned as she arched her back to expose more of her breasts to Alexi’s voracious mouth. "Would you mind terribly if I didn’t go with you this weekend?"

"Hmmm, why?" Alexi mumbled as she licked her way up Judith’s chest to her neck and nipped her gently.

"I have some business pending and I don’t want to take the chance of missing a call," Judith explained as she ran her hands through Alexi’s hair and ground her hips into her.

"Oh, okay," Alexi murmured between kisses. "I understand."

"I knew you would," Judith growled as she tangled her hands in Alexi’s hair and pulled her head up so she could capture her lips.

Judith’s kiss was savage and demanding. Alexi felt her legs weaken and her body engulfed with need to ravish her. Alexi’s hands flew across Judith’s writhing body peeling off her clothes with lightening speed. Judith groaned encouragingly into her mouth and kissed her harder.

Alexi pulled back from the kiss with a gasp and knelt to remove Judith’s skirt. Judith gave her a molten look as she peeled the skirt down her long legs. Alexi’s heart jumped when the skirt slid down to reveal that Judith was wearing nothing under it but a sexy black garter belt. Alexi stared and her legs turned to mush as she tried to process the vision before her.

Judith reached down and gently cupped Alexi’s face in her soft hot hands. Alexi’s eyes slowly traveled up Judith’s desire flushed body to finally meet brown eyes alight with passion.

"I need you now, Alexi," Judith demanded in a throaty voice.

Alexi nodded dumbly and wrapped her arms around Judith’s thighs. She gently pulled her forward and Judith eagerly obeyed.

"Gods yes!" Judith cried throwing her head back when Alexi’s lips touched her. She tangled her hands in Alexi’s hair and thrust her hips forward.

Alexi lost herself to the pleasure of pleasing Judith and the music of her howls of pleasure. All thoughts of Judith’s strange conversation fleeing before the waves of passion that consumed them.


Ash swore under her breath in frustration as she was once more jolted out of her meditation by images of Lauren sobbing invading her attempts at calm. Her shoulders slumped as she sighed in resignation. It was no use. She had tried to sleep and had managed a couple of hours before waking with her heart beating out of control. She couldn’t remember anything about a dream, but the feeling of dread was acute. She had finally giving it up as a lost cause and gotten up. She had decided to try and meditate and clear her mind of the jumble of thoughts and emotions running rampant.

This is futile! I can’t think here! She swore as she gazed around the cheery living room of Lu’s home. I need to go somewhere where I can block everything out and just think! Her mind raced as it tried to come up with a solution. The memories of riding her horse across the fields near her parents’ home flashed through her mind. She focused on the idea and nodded. Yeah, maybe that’s just what I need. To go ride Berrator and soak up the silence of the wilderness. She rose determined to be on her way now that she had a goal in mind. She quickly packed her duffle and headed for the door. Maybe I could talk to Graham about…. She shook her head. What would my baby brother know about girl problems? She snorted in self-disgust. I don’t think he even knows girls exist! Unless they flash across his computer screen!

She opened the front door and strode out onto the porch. She glanced up and saw Sheila and Lu just pulling in. Well, that takes care of the whole good-bye thing. She smirked. Too bad I couldn’t get out of here before they got home and just have left a note saying I’d see them later! Gods, I hope they don’t hassle me about leaving!

She pulled a smile out of somewhere as she walked down the steps to meet her friends. "Hey, I see they let you go."

"Yeah and not a moment too soon!" Lu growled with a grin. "You going somewhere?" She pointed at the duffle in Ash’s hand.

Ash shrugged, "Yeah, I decided to head on home tonight."

"Did you get any sleep?" Sheila asked with concern as she came up to stand beside Lu.


Lu snorted, "Which means next to none if I’m not lacking in my Ash speak!"

Ash grinned wryly and raised one eyebrow.

"Are you going to be okay driving? I don’t want you to get in a wreck!" Sheila said giving her a worried look.

"I’m fine, Sheila, really," Ash assured her. "I just decided I need to go somewhere I can think and I’m afraid this isn’t it!"

"Where you headed?" Lu asked draping her arm over Sheila’s shoulders. Sheila leaned against her and looked inquiring at Ash.

"Thought I’d head over to my folks," Ash stated offhandedly as her gaze wandered towards her truck. She couldn’t meet her friends’ eyes and wasn’t sure why. It left her feeling unsettled and worried.

"Well, be careful! You know how bad the deer are this time of year," Lu warned as she watched Ash shift in discomfort. Now, what is going on with you? You are definitely spooked. Lu mentally shook her head. Listen to your damn heart, Ash! Ancestors! But a blind deaf guy could see how being away from Lauren is tearing you apart! Why can’t you?

"I’ll be careful, Lu," Ash stated as her eyes came back to meet Lu’s concerned hazel. She let her token crooked grin curve her lips. "I should be back through soon. I’ll stop by."

"You better!" Sheila ordered with a warm smile. "I’m looking forward to meeting your Lauren, so don’t keep us waiting for too long."

Ash dropped her gaze and nodded. "I’ll do my best, Sheila. That’s all I can promise," she stated quietly.

"I know, Ash. Just don’t forget what I told you about faith okay?" Sheila said in a comforting tone.

"I won’t," Ash vowed and peeked at her through her bangs.

"Good. Then I guess I better get inside and figure out what to feed the savage here," Sheila teased as she gave Lu an appraising look.

"Hey!" Lu said in outrage.

Sheila just laughed and darted for the door. Ash and Lu watched her go. Ash chuckled and Lu turned to her with a scowl.

"Think that’s pretty funny, huh?" Lu demanded.

"Oh yeah. She definitely has your number," Ash confirmed with a smirk.

Lu glared at her for a few moments and then chuckled, shaking her head. "Yeah, I know. But don’t spread it around okay?"

"Now would I do that?" Ash asked placing her hand on her chest and giving Lu her best innocent look. "Would I soil the reputation of the baddest bounty hunter in the biz? Perish the thought!"

"You… are… certifiable!" Lu stated, placing her hands on her hips.

"True," Ash smirked.

"So, you’re going to go to the Manor and commune with nature or what?" Lu asked.

"Something like that," Ash said solemnly as she gave Lu a helpless shrug.

"Do me a favor, k?" Lu asked her face going serious.

"Sure if I can," Ash answered suddenly wary.

"Try not to think so damn much and just let yourself feel!" Lu ordered sternly. "Your biggest problem is you overanalyze everything! Something’s just don’t make sense. They just are and that’s that."

"I’ll take that into consideration," Ash replied as she felt her uneasiness double. Something about what Lu had said had struck a chord within her. I don’t have time to think about it now! I’ll think about it on the drive. I’ll have plenty of time to psychoanalyze myself on the way! "I better get going."

"Okay. Call if you need anything," Lu said offering her hand.

Ash clasped her hand warmly and shook it with a smile. "I’ll keep that in mind. I don’t foresee anything, but it’s nice to know I can call if I need you."

"I’ll always be here, Ash," Lu vowed meeting her blue eyes and willing Ash to see her sincerity.

Ash nodded gravely. "I know."

"Now get the hell out of here!" Lu said as she gently shoved Ash towards her truck alleviating the growing tension.

"I’m going, I’m going! You don’t have to be so damn pushy!" Ash grumbled good-naturedly as she headed for her truck.

"Drive safe!" Lu called.

"I will, thanks," Ash replied as she climbed into her truck and started it up. She saw Lu wave and she waved back before turning her head and pulling out of the drive to begin her trek to Montana and hopefully the answers to her questions.


Lauren jerked her head up with a start. She had nodded off again she realized and decided it would probably be best to pack it up for the night. She leaned back in her chair and rubbed her tired eyes. She had sat in front of her computer all day and felt satisfied with the dent she had made in her thesis. She stretched and eyed the time displayed on her monitor.

"No wonder I’m tired!" she moaned as she realized it was nearing midnight. She wondered absently if she had eaten as she shut down her computer and headed for the bathroom to brush her teeth.

"Yeah, I had that cup of soup around 8," she murmured aloud as she wearily made her way into the bathroom and flicked on the light. She stared at her reflection wryly. "What are you looking at?" Her reflection had no witty comeback so chose to remain silent. Lauren shrugged and went about getting ready for bed.

She was just rinsing out her mouth when she heard the phone ring. Her heart leapt at the sound. She quickly turned off the faucet and dashed out of the bathroom. She lunged across the bed and grabbed the phone on the second ring.

"Hello?" she asked breathlessly.

"Hi." Ash’s low voice flowed out of the phone and warmed her heart.

"Hi!" Lauren breathed with more enthusiasm. She curled up on the bed and hugged the phone to her ear.

"I didn’t wake you did I?"

"No. I was just brushing my teeth and getting ready to go to bed," Lauren reassured her. She felt nervous and elated all at once. "I’m glad you called. It’s wonderful to hear your voice."

"Well, I remembered you saying you wanted to hear my voice before you fell asleep so I thought now would be the perfect time to call," Ash said with a smile evident in her tone.

"You remembered that?" Lauren asked surprised.

"I think I remember every word you ever said to me, sweetheart."

Lauren felt her body flush at the words. "Really?" Ash murmured an affirmative. "You know you make me feel so wonderful with just a few words."

Ash grinned as she watched the sleet run down the windshield. She had pulled off into a tiny rest stop when she had decided to call Lauren, figuring it wouldn’t be a good idea to try and drive in the storm while trying to talk to Lauren. "I’m glad," she said in a low melodious voice.

"How are you?" Lauren queried anxiously as she pulled her comforter over her shoulders.

"I’m fine," Ash answered quietly. "Lu was released from the hospital today and is home. The doctors said she should be fine. Just needs to take it easy for a couple of days."

"That’s good!" Lauren agreed happily. "I bet Sheila is relieved to have her home."

"Yeah, especially in her condition."

"Her condition? What do you mean?"

"Oh, ummm…" Ash paused. She wasn’t sure if it was her place to tell Lauren about Sheila’s pregnancy or not. She shrugged. "It’s nothing bad, but I think you better ask Sheila for more info."

"Will I get the chance to ask her in person?" Lauren asked softly with hope evident in her voice.

"I don’t see why not," Ash said and actually felt comforted by the thought. She wanted to bring Lauren to Spokane to meet Lu and Sheila. To share her life with her and introduce her to the people she thought were important in it. Her eyes widened at the revelation. What am I doing? Why the hell am I headed for the Manor instead of back to Seattle and Lauren? Her mind screamed.

"Good! I’m looking forward to meeting her. She sounded really nice on the phone…" Lauren’s voice floated out of the phone and Ash struggled to comprehend what she was saying. Her mind was waging war on her fears and doubts causing her to lose track of what Lauren was saying.

"Ash? Honey, are you okay?" Lauren asked in a worried voice when Ash had been quiet for too long. She had stopped talking and Ash hadn’t answered her. She was praying they hadn’t been cut off. "Ash? Are you still there?"

Ash closed her eyes and shook her head vigorously, trying to silence the cacophony in her head. "Yeah, I’m still here, sweetheart. Sorry about that. What were you saying?"

"Nothing important," Lauren replied dismissively. She paused as worry enveloped her. "Ash, are you all right?"

"Why do you ask?" Ash asked in a quiet voice. She wanted to climb through the phone and fall into Lauren’s arms and forget about everything.

"You just sound so distant," Lauren whispered.

"I’m sorry. I don’t mean to," Ash apologized. "I’m just tired. It’s been a really long couple of days."

"Did you get any sleep at all?"

"Some, but not much," Ash admitted.

"I wish I could climb through this phone and hug you right now!" Lauren said fervently.

Ash blinked as she heard her thoughts echoed. She chuckled.

"You think that’s funny?" Lauren asked defensively.

"No, no, sweetheart. Not the sentiment," Ash reassured her as she leaned forward and rested her head on the steering wheel. "I was just thinking the same thing and it struck me as funny when you echoed my thoughts."

"Oh," Lauren grinned. "Well, you could just come back here and then our problems would be solved."

Ash thought about it. It’s what she wanted to do. But could she? Could she take the chance of possibly hurting Lauren? How big of a chance was there really? She sighed in frustration. "I’ll be back soon. I promise. I just have a few things I need to do first."

"I wish you’d let me help," Lauren pled quietly. "I don’t know what demons you stirred up to haunt you last night, but I would really like to help you banish them, Ash."

Ash felt her throat close at the sentiment. She wished fervently that she could allow Lauren to help. But how could she tell her that she was afraid she would hurt her? "You are helping," she whispered hoarsely as she choked back the tears trying to escape. "Just by being there."

"I listened to your cd again today," Lauren said in a soft voice. "I never realized how much pain you must have been in when you made it until I listened to it again." She closed her eyes and tried to pour all her love and support into her voice. "I wanted so much to just pull you into my arms and tell you no one would hurt you like that again."

"Thank you," Ash replied sincerely.

"You’re welcome," Lauren said. "Ash, come back to me soon, okay? You’re being away is killing me."

Ash’s head shot up at that. "Really?" she asked in disbelief as she stared blankly out the window.

"Yeah," Lauren nodded. "I know I sound like a lovesick puppy, but I can’t stand you being away from me. Especially knowing that you’re dealing with stuff that you won’t or can’t let me help with. It’s driving me crazy!"

"I’m sorry, sweetheart," Ash apologized with a small grin making its way onto her face. "It’s driving me crazy too if that helps any."

Lauren smiled as the warmth of Ash’s words flowed into her heart. "Well, you’re the only one who can save our sanity!"

"I’ll do my best," Ash vowed solemnly.

"Okay. I guess that’s the best I can hope for," Lauren teased with a light tone.

"I should let you get some rest," Ash said regretfully. She’d much rather stay on the phone all night, but she knew she needed to get back on the road. Hopefully she would arrive at her folks’ by early morning and could get some sleep. Then she could check on her mutt and go on a long ride to help clear her thoughts. Hopefully she’d be able to sort out everything that had happened and be on her way back to Seattle by the weekend. She grinned at the idea.

"Yeah, I guess the same goes for me," Lauren sighed. "Take the time you need, Ash. I just hope it’s not too long!"

Ash chuckled, "I promise to think fast and be back before you know it."

"Okay. I’ll see if I can wrap up my thesis while you’re away," Lauren laughed. "I have to say one thing, I sure have got a lot done trying to keep myself busy and not worry about you!"

"Glad to hear it," Ash smiled. "I think!"

"It’s all good. I love you, Ash," Lauren vowed quietly.

"I love you too, Lauren. I’ll call again soon," Ash replied sincerely. "Sweet dreams."

"You too. Bye."


Ash flipped the phone closed and let out a deep sigh. She stared out at the sleet with a grimace. "Well, I better get this show on the road," she decided as she started the truck. "The sooner I get things taken care of the sooner I can get back to Lauren."


Ash pulled into the private lane that would lead her to her parents’ place just as the sun was beginning to brighten the sky. She rounded the corner and flipped off her headlights so as not to flash the windows and possibly awaken anyone. She surveyed the courtyard and counted 6 vehicles parked in the area designated for guests. All had out of state plates she noted as she pulled around the side of the barn and turned off the truck.

She reached over the seat and snagging her duster, shrugged into it. The wind was blowing bitterly, but at least it had stopped sleeting about an hour ago. She braced herself for the cold as she opened the door and climbed out. She shivered and ducked her head into the wind. She pulled her duster close and dashed towards the welcoming warmth of the barn.

She pulled the door open and squeezed in, slamming it shut behind her with a sigh of relief. She leaned against the door and let her eyes adjust to the dim gloom of the barn. The smell of hay and horses greeted her and she inhaled deeply, the reassuring scent soothing her.

She grinned and strode down the aisle towards Bellator’s stall. A gray head poked out and issued a welcoming whinny.

"Hey there, girl," she greeted softly as she reached the horse and rubbed her forehead. "Miss me?"

The mare butted her head into her chest making her laugh with joy. Ash scratched her chin and straightened her mane, soaking in the simple pleasure of being here.

"Want to hear a secret, girl?" she whispered conspiratorially. Bellator’s ears swiveled at the sound of her voice and she shook her head. Ash grinned and leaned in close to whisper in the mare’s ear. "I’m in love with the most wonderful woman in the world!"

Bellator snorted and nodded her head. She butted Ash in the chest and eyed her speculatively.

"Oh, I know what you want!" Ash laughed as she reached inside the pocket of her duster and brought out an apple. Bellator arched her neck forward and whuffled. "Give me a sec to section it, you greedy thing!" Ash pulled out a knife and quickly sectioned the apple. She held out her hand with the offerings and the mare lipped them off her open palm. Ash grinned indulgently and scratched her cheek. "How would you like to go on a ride today, huh? Bet you don’t get much exercise with me away."

Bellator whinnied in agreement.

"Well, let me just go check in at the manor and I’ll be back. I need some peace and quiet to think and I can’t think of any better way to get that then on your back!" she said giving Bellator a final pat and turned to leave the barn to yelp in surprise at the sight of her father standing in the doorway not 15 feet away.

Ash patted her chest as she fought to calm her heart. "Geez, pop! You trying to give me a heart attack?"

Harrison shook is graying head and chuckled. "Sorry about that, maestro. Didn’t mean to startle you," he apologized in his clipped accent.

"What are you doing up so early?" Ash asked as she strode towards her father. "I thought Davis took care of the stables?"

"Oh, he does usually," her father said giving her a knowing wink. "But he’s off with his girl for a few days. Gone off to Missoula to meet her folks."

"Really?" Ash inquired, her voice rising in question.

Her father nodded smugly and motioned her to take a seat on the haybales stacked by the door. "Yes. Seems our young Davis is quite smitten," he chuckled as she took a seat and settled on the haybale across from her. "Maybe your mom will get those grandchildren she’s been pining after."

"You can always hope!" Ash grinned her eyes alight with mischief. "Of course he’ll have to behave himself and not embarrass the poor girl in front of her family!"

Harrison threw back his head and laughed heartily. "Isn’t that the absolute truth? But I have a feeling that Paula will be able to weather the storm! She’s got spirit!"

Ash grinned. "Well, that’s good to hear. Guess she won’t feel like a lamb surrounded by hungry wolves when Davis brings her to the family gathering then."

"No, I think she’ll fit in just fine," Harrison agreed. He studied his daughter thoughtfully and frowned. "So, you want to tell me what brings you home at such an early hour?"

Ash’s grin slowly faded and she ducked her head. She shrugged. "I…"

"Ashlin, look at me," Harrison ordered gently. Ash’s blue eyes came up and Harrison saw the turmoil evident in their depths. "I don’t want any more misunderstandings between us. If you need someone to talk to or just need to be here… well, you know you are more than welcome."

Ash met her father’s kind regard and a small smile curved her lips. "Thanks, pop. That means a lot to me."

"You want to tell me what’s got you so wound up?" her father asked softly. Ash lowered her eyes and began picking at the haybale nervously. Harrison noted the behavior and patiently waited for his little girl to decide whether or not his help would be welcome.

"I… I met someone," Ash offered in a quiet voice as she continued to pull hay out of the bale. She couldn’t meet her father’s kind eyes. Maybe he can help, she thought. He’s been married to mom for 35 years, so he knows about women. Yeah, but does he understand fear? Her mind continued to debate how to broach the subject with her father.

"You met someone," Harrison acknowledged with a small smile. And from the looks of you, she’s something special, he added silently. "Ashlin, I know you’re gay if that’s what’s got your knickers in a knot."

Ash’s head shot up and she stared stunned at her father’s smiling face. "You… you do?" she asked in a shaky voice.

Harrison nodded. "Yes, I know," he said meeting her worried eyes with a smile. "I’ve known for quite some time now. I don’t care, Ashlin. Love is love. If you find love with another woman then that is fine with me."

"Really?" she asked with hope.

"Really," he insisted. He reached out and gently took Ash’s hands in his and gave them a gentle squeeze. "I don’t want to lose you again, Ashlin. I love you without reservations."

Ash smiled and pulled her father into a thankful hug. "Thanks, pop. That means everything to me. I was so afraid you would be disappointed or something."

"No, Ashlin. I don’t think I could ever be disappointed in you," Harrison replied as he smiled into her dark hair. "Now, why don’t you tell me about this young lady that seems to have you all a twitter."

Ash chuckled and slid down to sit on the floor of the barn at her father’s feet. She rested her head in his lap and a contented smile graced her lips as she felt his strong hands begin to gently stroke her head. It was one of the things she had missed when she was gone, this closeness with her father. She had always felt like she could tell him anything and many times had. Until… she frowned and mentally pushed the memories back into their dark hole. "Her name’s Lauren O’Shay," she offered.

Harrison smiled as he heard the adoration evident in his daughter’s voice. "How did you meet her?"

"Benson dragged me out dancing and told me he had a couple of friends he wanted me to meet," Ash said as her mind brought forth the memory of her first sight of Lauren sitting at the table in the bar. Lauren had taken her breath away with her simple beauty and ready smile. When those green eyes had met hers, she knew that she was lost. "Lauren was one of them."

"Oh?" her father prompted.

"Yeah," Ash nodded her voice becoming wistful. "We ended up dancing together most of the night. It was…." She frowned as she struggled to think of a word to describe the experience. "…magical. I have never found a partner who fit so well. It was like we had been dancing together all our lives!"

"Mmmm," Harrison agreed. "So how did you feel when you held her in your arms?"

Ash closed her eyes and thought about it. "I felt… I felt… complete," she whispered in awe. She turned her head and looked up at her father for his reaction.

He grinned and nodded. "Like you had come home?" he inquired knowingly. She nodded. "Like you hadn’t realized a part of you was missing until right then?"

Ash nodded again as a wondering look graced her face erasing the years and reminding Harrison of the young woman she used to be. "How do you know that?" she asked in wonder.

Harrison chuckled, "Because I felt the same way with your mother!"

"You did?" Ash asked curiously.

"Yes, I did," Harrison replied with a joyful smile. "The first time her blue eyes met mine, I knew that this was the woman I was going to marry and spend the rest of my days with."

"How did you know?" Ash asked quietly.

"I dunno," Harrison shook his head bemused. "I just knew. I felt this connection between us from the very first time our eyes met. I’m happy to report I was right!"

Ash grinned. "Lauren says she feels a connection between us," Ash admitted softly as she lowered her head once more.

"And do you?" Harrison asked as he gently stroked her silky hair in a comforting rhythm.

"Yeah, I feel it," she whispered, relaxing under her father’s ministrations.


"It scares me, pop," she replied softly. "I feel so out of control and so overwhelmed with everything!"

"Well, maestro, I hate to tell you this, but that’s the way love is," Harrison soothed. "But I don’t think that’s why you came rushing home now is it?"

"No," Ash admitted in a small voice. "It’s something else."

"You want to tell me about it? Maybe I can offer some advice," he offered gently. "I think I know you better than you might realize. Maybe another point of view will help you work whatever it is out."

"I’m… I’m afraid I might hurt her," Ash said with pain evident in her tone.

"Hurt her? What do you mean?"

"I’m afraid I’ll hurt her physically, pop," Ash clarified with bitterness. "I’m not the nicest person, you know. I have a temper and I’m afraid that I’ll lash out at her without even realizing it before it’s too late!"

"Ashlin, calm down," Harrison ordered gently. Ash’s entire body had stiffened at the mere idea of hurting Lauren and Harrison knew that he needed to get her to think logically instead of reacting to her fears.

"I’m sorry, pop," Ash murmured as she attempted to relax and gain control of her emotions.

"It’s all right, Ashlin. But you need to be rational about this," Harrison soothed. "I know that you have a temper. Your mother has the same one!" Ash peeked up at him and he smiled reassuringly. "That doesn’t mean that she’s going to haul off and start swinging."

"Mom isn’t trained to kill people with her bare hands, pop," Ash insisted.

"That’s true. But she also hasn’t had years of training in self control and honor," Harrison pointed out. "You have. I’ve watched you since you first started training. I was a little worried when I realized the potential you had of hurting someone, Ashlin."

"You were?" Ash asked in surprise.

"Yes, I was," Harrison nodded. "I was worried you might get really mad at one of your brothers and do them some serious harm. I finally went and talked to your teacher to voice my concerns. Do you know what he told me?"

"No, what?" Ash asked turning so she could look more directly at her father’s face and gauge his reactions.

"He laughed," Harrison smiled and shook his head. "He said that there was no way that you would ever lash out at someone in anger. Said you were too controlled and aware of your environment even when your temper got the best of you."

"What do you mean?" Ash questioned with a puzzled frown.

"He said that he purposefully provoked you into rages. Do you remember that?" Harrison asked as he cupped her cheek lovingly.

Ash frowned and thought back on all the days spent with her instructor, Sensei Chen. Finally the memory came. Her face became thoughtful as she analyzed the memory. "Yes, I remember," she said slowly as she played the memory through her mind.

"And what happened?" Harrison prompted softly.

"He started criticizing me… called me a weak American girl," she said in a far away voice. "He started feinting kicks at my head and calling me names. I got really mad. I’d been working hard and I thought he was pleased with my progress." Her voice trailed off as the memory of the hurt and betrayal came back to her.

"What did you do?"

"I… I flipped out," Ash said with a shake of her head. "I was totally consumed with rage and I just went after him."

"Did you hurt him?"

"Hell no!" Ash laughed ruefully. "I couldn’t have hurt him then if my life depended on it! He was a wiry old bastard and knew every trick in the book. But that doesn’t prove that I wouldn’t hurt Lauren, pop. Chen was a trained martial artist and my teacher. Lauren is just a kind hearted woman who had the misfortune of falling in love with a potential powder keg ready to erupt!"

"So Lauren loves you does she?" her father asked as he stroked her face gently with his thumb.

"She says she does," Ash replied quietly meeting his knowing hazel eyes. "That’s why this is so hard! I love her, pop! I love her so much it hurts! What if I hurt her? I don’t think I could live with myself! I already have to live with what happened to Graham!"

"Ashlin!" Harrison barked. He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her roughly. She stared up at him in wide-eyed shock. "It was an accident! Quit blaming yourself for something you had no control over! I think a 10 year sentence was enough to pay, so just stop it!" Ash nodded slowly and her father relaxed his grip. "No one blames you, Ashlin. Certainly not Graham, so just let it go and move on."

"I’ll try, pop. I’m sorry," Ash murmured apologetically.

"Finish telling me what happened with Chen that day," Harrison ordered gently.

"What?" Ash looked at him puzzled. He cocked an eyebrow at her and motioned her to continue with the tale. "That’s all that happened. He pissed me off, I tried to beat the crap out of him blinded by my own anger, and ended up just exhausting myself. That’s it. End of story. I don’t see the point here."

"That’s not the end of the story, Ashlin," Harrison chided.

"It’s not?" Ash frowned as she tried to think of what her father could possibly be getting at. "What are you talking about?"

"You don’t remember Graham coming into the dojo that day?" Harrison questioned with a sober look on his face. She shook her head baffled. "He was only about 3 and thought you hung the moon. He had been bugging Ellie and I to let him out of the house to go find you. I told him you were training and couldn’t be disturbed." Harrison shook his head at the memory of his pesky 3-year-old son pulling on his pant leg and looking up at him with a pleading look in his hazel eyes. "I finally got him settled playing Legos or so I thought! When I went in to check a half hour later, the little scamp had made good his escape!"

"Wait, wait a minute," Ash said sitting back and motioning with her hands. "Are you telling me that Graham came into the dojo while I was flipping out and trying my best to kill Chen?"

"Mmm," Harrison nodded sagely. "That about sums it up. You don’t remember?"

"No," Ash frowned as she tried to recreate that day in her mind, but after the rage took hold everything was a blur. "I usually don’t remember when I go into a rage like that. Lu calls it blanking."

"I see," Harrison replied. "Well, I came over to the dojo after I found Graham missing and had a talk with Chen."

"What happened?" Ash asked earnestly her eyes meeting her father’s with trepidation.

"He told me about provoking you. I was furious! I looked about and saw you sitting quietly on a mat in what looked like meditation. Graham was sitting next to you and trying his best to mimic your every move!" Harrison informed her with a wry smile. "Chen said he knew of your temper and needed to provoke it so he could judge how well you control it and how aware you are when it takes over."

"What did he say?" Ash whispered fearful of the answer.

"He said it was the damnedest thing," Harrison stated and Ash quirked an eyebrow in question. "Said he got you roaring mad and you came at him like a banshee. But a banshee that was in total control of your motions. He said your anger burned cold. He was hard pressed to keep you back and then Graham came charging into the dojo and he said he almost had a heart attack!"

"Oh God!" Ash swore closing her eyes.

"No, Ashlin," Harrison soothed and cupped her face in his hands until she opened her eyes and met his sincere gaze. "He said it was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. Said it was like you knew Graham was there." He shook his head in wonder. "Graham charged straight for you from behind and Chen tried desperately to intercept him, terrified of what you might do. You landed a perfect spinning kick to his head and whirled around in the same motion to catch Graham’s flying leap into your arms!"

"I did?" she asked bewildered.

"Yes, you did," Harrison asserted. "Somehow, even through your rage you knew your little brother was there." He paused to let his meaning sink in. "Ashlin, you never hurt anyone who wasn’t trying to hurt you or someone you loved. Your fear for Lauren is groundless. Do you understand me?"

Ash stared into her father’s sincere face and let the sincerity of his words seep in. "Do you really think that, pop? Even after everything I’ve done?" she asked in a voice rough with emotion.

"Yes, maestro. I do," he confirmed as he pulled her into a tight embrace. "So why don’t you?"

"I don’t know," Ash cried as she rested her head on her father’s solid shoulder and let the tears of frustration come. "I’m just so confused and scared and…"

"Hush now, maestro," Harrison soothed as he rubbed her back. "You just go ride you horse and think about what I said okay?"

"Okay, pop. I will," she sniffed and sat back from his embrace. She gave him a crooked smile and wiped her eyes in embarrassment. "Thanks."

"Anytime, maestro," he grinned and stood. He dusted his pants off and offered her a hand up. She gripped his hand and let him pull her to her feet.


"You’re welcome," he replied as he stepped back and eyed her critically. "You look wiped. Maybe you should try and get some sleep before you take that monster you call a horse out."

Ash laughed. "I’m fine, pop. Really. I just haven’t been sleeping very well lately," she reassured.

"You sure?" he asked with concern.

"Yeah, I’m sure. I think I just need some time to process everything and then I’ll come in and get some sleep," she said giving him a wide smile.

"When are you going to bring this young lady home to meet the family?" Harrison asked folding his arms across his chest.

"Don’t you think that’s a bit premature?" Ash asked mimicking his stance.

"No… I’m looking forward to meeting the woman who has finally taught my maestro the true meaning of love," Harrison replied with a smirk.

Ash felt the heat rise to her face, but met her father’s regard without blinking. "Is that so?" she drawled.

"Yes," he asserted with a firm nod.

"Well I guess I better get my soul searching done and get my butt back to Seattle and see whether or not she’s still waiting for me then," she smirked wryly.

"I would guess so," Harrison grinned and turned to leave. "You be careful out there. There’s been quite a bit of rain and some mudslides. I don’t want to have to come out there and dig your butt out and then explain to your mother why we’re traipsing mud through her kitchen!"

Ash laughed as an image of her mother chastising them came to mind. "I promise, pop. I don’t think I’m up to one of mom’s tongue lashings!"

"Good. ‘Cause neither am I!" he replied over his shoulder as he pulled the barn door open and glanced back. "I’m truly happy for you, Ashlin. Do me one favor, hmmm?"

"What would that be?" she asked curiously.

Harrison’s face sobered as he looked at her seriously. "Don’t run away from love. It’s rare. When you find it, grab on with both hands and fight like the devil to keep it."

"I’ll remember that," Ash promised softly.

"Good. Now go ride that monster of yours and I’ll inform your mother you’re here," Harrison replied. "Will you be back for lunch?"

Ash thought about it for a moment and replied, "Yeah. I think I’ll just take Bellator up to the lake and then come back. Should be back by…" she glanced at her watch and saw that it was just after 8. "Noon at the latest."

"All right. See you then," her father said and with a wave disappeared out the door.

"See you then," Ash called after him. She stood in the silence of the barn and let the tranquility of the place soak into her. The conversation with her father had sent her senses spinning and they hadn’t quite righted themselves yet. She shook her head and turned towards the tack room to grab her saddle and bridle for Bellator. She had plenty to think about and she figured she better be about it. There was a beautiful woman waiting in Seattle for her and she didn’t want to keep her waiting. A sense of well being flowed over her and she began to whistle as she grabbed the things from the tack room and made her way back to Bellator’s stall.



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